Journalist survives kidnapping and torture, speaks out on drug war and corruption in Mexico

In a month and a half, I documented 14 cases of young people kidnapped by organized crime and taken to that difficult-to-access region, located between the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. On September 17, I finished documenting case 15, and two days later, I became number 16. 

  • 1 year ago
  • March 31, 2023
7 min read
Luis Cardona received death threats and lives in constant fear simply due to his job as a journalist in Mexico. Luis Cardona received death threats and lives in constant fear simply due to his job as a journalist in Mexico. | Photo courtesy of Engin Akyurt via Unsplash
Luis Cardona is a 62-year-old journalist from the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. For a decade, he has lived in hiding, displaced from his home. His journalism work focuses on the coverage of drug trafficking and security issues in the country, as well as cross-border stories.
For two decades, Mexico has gradually become one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism. Since the year 2000, more than 153 journalists have been assassinated in the country. Many disappearances keep happening every year.
Currently, the government in power has adopted various ways to discredit the press, saying they’re “for the opposing party.”
The organization Reporters Without Borders has documented that in three years in office, the current president has criticized journalists for their lack of professionalism and has described the Mexican press as “biased,” “unfair,” and a “waste of journalism.” These attacks are usually directed exclusively against media that cover issues relating to corruption.

CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — Back in 2012, I heard of many kidnappings taking place in Nuevo Casas Grandes, my hometown in Chihuahua, Mexico. As a journalist, I started writing and reporting on the kidnappings to raise awareness. Not long after, they kidnapped and tortured me.

Ten years after, I still receive death threats for my journalistic work. I see now that the situation for journalists has not changed, even a decade later, and I remain under constant threat.  

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I became a target the moment I spoke out about the kidnappings 

In recent years, I lived in different shelters as part of the protection measures granted to me by the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. We usually have access to bodyguards and security, but they felt I did not need them. This program aims to protect journalists threatened directly for their work, but some have died even under their protection. This made me feel uneasy and scared.

Back in 2012, I lived through one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Police officers disguised as the military kidnapped me. The war against drug trafficking declared by our then President Felipe Calderón pitted the various drug cartels throughout Chihuahua and Mexico against one another. The City of Nuevo Casa Grande near the Sierra Mountains serves as the setting for the transfer of drug shipments bound for the United States of America.

I wrote reports about young people forced to work in the marijuana and poppy fields in a mountainous area known as the Triangulo Dorado. The workers wanted to quit for fear of the new government regulations but were forced and threatened into staying. Nobody did anything about it, and their exploitation went unnoticed.

In a month and a half, I documented 14 cases of young people kidnapped by organized crime and taken to that difficult-to-access region, located between the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango. On September 17, I finished documenting case 15, and two days later, I became number 16. 

They drove me out in the middle of nowhere, blindfolded, and tortured me

Three years later, I told my story in a short film called I am number 16. It felt vital to speak out about what happened to me. I lived with so much fear and anxiety for so long. I wanted to denounce not only the kidnappings, but the direct threat on our freedom of speech and freedom of press. 

In the short film, I describe how on September 19, 2012, at 11:00 a.m., a group of policemen dressed as soldiers detained me and took me to their headquarters. Once locked up, they beat me with their fists and kicked me until I passed out. I woke up with injuries all over my body. Then, they put me in a truck and drove me to a hill with no cell phone service. They beat me again, this time with a whip used to beat horses. While they tortured me, I thought how dying might be easier. Finally, they tried to suffocate me with a rope they wrapped around my neck until I passed out. They did not kill me and I am still not sure why. I felt anger more than fear and thought about my youngest son as guilt filled my body. 

It took me years to recover. Even now, moments of this day still haunt me, and probably always will. I survived, but became displaced from my hometown by all the violence and fear from drug trafficking businesses and the State. More than a decade and two government rotations have passed, and yet my safety as a journalist in this country remains under threat. I am not the only one. We are over 500 journalists of all kinds under the Journalist Protection Service, constantly living in fear. 

I couldn’t find any work, nobody believed my story 

The hardest part is having no source of income or financial support to do anything. In the 10 years that I have been displaced from my home, I have worked as a freelance journalist in different states. Nothing ever stuck, because no employer believed my story. They thought I made it up or refused to hear the details. I never found a permanent job that offered benefits and kept rotating for years. 

On top of the emotional trauma, I suffered severe spinal injuries due to the torture and beating, along with seven fissures and four hernias. I depend on a treadmill to walk. My reduced mobility makes finding work that much harder, as no employer wants the added risk of hiring me. I felt completely on my own in the world, unable to rebuild a life for myself. 

By the year 2019, my situation slowly improved despite everything, and I was hired by a media outlet in Chihuahua. Every morning, I covered the legislative and political conferences given by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.  The salary proved decent, and it occupied my days. Everything seemed to work out, until my work meeting with the president happened. 

Once again, I found myself in danger, and received countless death threats

 On October 17 of that year, clashes and roadblocks occurred in Culiacán, Sinaloa, with the involvement of the corrupted Mexican Army forces. The media called it Culiacanazo. The news covered the imprisonment of drug lord El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán López, and demanded he be released to the United States authorities.

That morning, I went to cover the President’s conference and questioned him about certain facts and the potential release of Ovidio. My questions generated a lot of attention and put a target on my back. When they aired the broadcast all over the country, I received millions of mentions on social media, including death threats. The public ministry considered one of those threats very real. 

The authorities agreed to provide me with bodyguards, which lasted two years, and then they took them away, despite that the threats continued. I identified the person who threatened me, yet I had no protection against them. The court decided to suspend the trial, wishing not to continue with the investigation. I continue to fight for prosecution, but corruption runs deep, and I fear it will never make it to court. Now, I continue to live on the run, terrified that at any moment, they will come get me. 

I lost everything in my life, but I will continue to fight

I currently live in a shelter, and suffer from insomnia due to my paranoia. Life feels like a sort of prison now. I no longer have a family. Those same policemen kidnapped my wife a year after me, but she thankfully had a panic button on her as part of the Protection Services measures. They tracked her down and rescued her right away, but she still carried trauma from the experience. Since then, we agreed on a divorce for her safety and my son’s, and they live somewhere far away from me.

I am not a hero. This is not a movie. In a situation like mine, you lose everyone you love because they fear you putting them at risk. The worst part is that the situation with the country’s corruption remains unchanged. The president refuses to acknowledge it. I never received any justice, even for the first kidnapping. The policemen who took me warned me they would come back and kill me if I ever filed a complaint. 

The only thing I can do now is repair the damages done to my mental and physical health. In addition to the protection measures, they withdrew the psychological help I received. Soon, they could take the shelter from me, too, as authorities no longer consider me at risk. Before they kidnapped me, I was 52 years old and thinking about retiring and being with my family. I felt very old and tired. Now, at 62 years old, I feel stronger than ever, and more motivated to continue to fight. 

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